Technical proficiency is no substitute for a good yarn, and whatever else the CKS Cultural Foundation’s flagship production of Mackay — The Black Bearded Bible Man (黑鬚馬偕) that premiered at the National Theater this weekend may be, it never develops into a gripping story. Rather than an amazed meander through the bizarre coincidences that made a Presbyterian missionary from Canada a cultural icon of Taiwan’s development, it plods through the main events of George Leslie Mackay’s life with the humorless determination of a schoolteacher preparing students for an exam.
The profoundly constricted conception of what can only be described as a hagiography of Mackay undermines every other quality of the production. That Mackay dedicated his life to Taiwan and was a conscientious missionary is an undisputed fact, and that he loved Taiwan and its people is more than probable, but these points are labored to the exclusion of virtually all other ideas, unnecessarily underscoring an ideological motivation for the creation of this opera. Mackay emerges as a cardboard cutout, and while the opera follows him quite literally from birth to death, this presentation of his life achieves neither operatic grandeur nor emotional depth. His reflections on the beauty of Taiwan seemed to have been cribbed from some of the more egregious publicity material published by the Government Information Office for the consumption of tourists. Even an extended scene in which Mackay comes into conflict with local temples over his medical and religious practices is bland, and one cannot get away from the suspicion that all rough edges have all been smoothed over in the interests of political correctness and the avoidance in the opera of even the slightest suspicion of controversy.
That said, baritone Thomas Maglioranza (who plays Mackay) does a sterling job with the thin material that he is given, impressing with his conviction. If his character is flat, then the rest are flatter still (if that is possible), and the strong cast of Asian opera talent is unable to shine.
The relationship between Mackay and his wife (soprano Chen Mei-ling), a shadowy figure in the history books and an opening for the show’s creators to give their imagination free rein, never really goes beyond idolatry of the great man.
Director Lukas Hemleb must be congratulated for his very creative stage design, using a series of concentric rectangles that form a series of independently articulated platforms and give the stage enormous dynamism. The use of projections, however, was not as successful. Clearly intended to inject an element of historical realism into the show, for the most part they managed to be little more than a distraction. Images of Mackay writing home, one of the many clumsy devices used to reveal the mind of the protagonist and move the story forward, served to cover changes to the set, but I found the fact that he seemed to be using a felt-tipped pen unreasonably annoying.
The opera, which was sung in English and Taiwanese, had subtitles in both Chinese and English. While the presence of English subtitles was definitely welcome, they would have benefited from editing, or at least proofreading, to avoid the numerous typos and basic grammatical mistakes that are unacceptable in such a high-profile international production.